Impact Connections: Reflections on the New Global Sustainability Leadership Minor

This edition of Impact Connections was written by Madison Phelan. It is edited by Sandi Ruddick and Madison Gove.

The Global Sustainability Leadership Institute launched the Global Sustainability Leadership Minor in the Fall of 2022 and has since welcomed its first 40 plus students. Applications open each semester for admission to the next semester’s cohort. This unique 17-hour minor allows students to take coursework outside of their majors, fosters collaboration and interaction with other students in other majors, and inspires the next generation of sustainability leaders. The GSLI’s Executive Director, Jeffrey Hales, and current student, Grace Castelino, share their experiences with the Minor in this month’s Impact Connections blog.

NOTE: Current sophomores and juniors (by year in school) can apply to the Spring 2024 cohort of the Minor through October 3rd at https://bit.ly/gsliminorappfall23

Interview with Jeffrey Hales, GSLI Executive Director

Madison: Why did UT Austin start the Global Sustainability Leadership Minor?

Jeffrey Hales: We were interested in trying to find a way to help spread sustainability across campus. The Minor is intended to be an outlet where any undergraduate from any part of campus can connect with sustainability; they will learn how that intersects with business activities and how it relates to communication and then try to fit it back into their primary area of study. The Minor is a way to help undergraduates put together the pieces of the educational picture, as well as send a signal to the marketplace that their skill set is strong.

Madison: Exactly! A lot of touch points can be just through the coursework alone. What skills and experiences does the Minor provide to students?

Jeffrey: A big part of the Minor’s focus is thinking about the connection between business activities and the types of fundamental sustainability issues that are being studied in many department and colleges across campus. Also, we try to teach communication skills, since communication is the thread through which everything in our society connects. We hope that classroom knowledge can be supplemented with a lot of what we do in the Minor in terms of trying to bring in relevant current topics and outside speakers to create real-world touchpoints for students. We want them to take the concepts that they’re learning about and then make the connections to what is happening in the world around them. One of the really cool things I like about teaching in the Minor is that it’s the most diverse set of students that I’ve connected with. They just come from so many different backgrounds. They have so many different skill sets and questions and perspectives. It’s really fun to stand in front of them and to see them interact with each other.

Madison: Absolutely, and that leads to my next question: what coursework does the Minor include?

Jeffrey: The Minor includes 17 hours of coursework. The core work involves a required class in the School of Business that I teach called “Global Business Sustainability”, and then one in the College of Communication called “Communicating Sustainability”. There are also electives that students take from each of those colleges and one of the Science departments. Finally, we require a course on current topics and a practicum course. The practicum can be fulfilled in one of the GSLI’s experiential learning programs, like LIFT or SEED, or students can submit their own practicum ideas that provide hands-on learning.

Madison: How has the Minor grown over the last year? How do you see it changing over the coming years?

Jeffrey: Right now, we are trying to raise awareness and get the word out across campus. I think it’s a little easier for us to do that inside of McCombs and Moody, because that’s where we are located. However, we have not reached as many students from other programs as we would like. Of course, we can’t admit more than we can serve either. So we’re trying to grow the Minor as interest in it grows. For example, we have increased the size of the admissions cohort each semester over the first three semesters, and we expect to bring in an additional 20–30 students each semester for the foreseeable future. Going forward, I would hope that we would continue to attract interest in the Minor and then be able to build out the support and the courses to meet the growing demand. If the courses are good, then students will want to take the courses regardless, and the Minor can be one way — like for my class. Each year, t’s restricted for registration initially, except for Minor students. So, for those students that know that this is something that they want to do, they can have a way to get priority access to it.

Madison: That’s wonderful, especially since I know classes fill up quickly. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Jeffrey: I would say that increasingly we’re seeing career opportunities that are growing out of the need for more people to understand sustainability issues and from different perspectives. A lot of times I tell students that it seems like there will be demand for sustainability-specific roles, but also there will be much more demand for these skills in all career paths. I would encourage students to become experts at something that they love and choose a career path that way. Even if that’s not something that is directly about sustainability, it’s an important angle to almost every aspect of life these days. If they can add sustainability to what they’re already studying and learning and getting experience around, I think that’s going to create even more job opportunities.

Interview with current B.S.A Chemistry Student in the Minor: Grace Castelino

Madison: Why did you apply to the Minor?

Grace Castelino: I did a study abroad program in Singapore last summer related to sustainability that opened my eyes to a passion for the topic. I really want to pursue something in this. I actually applied to one of the GSLI’s other programs first, called LIFT (Longhorn Impact Fellowship at Texas), where students are paired up with companies and act as sustainability consultants. I did that first in the fall of 2022, and then in Spring 2023. The LIFT program’s manager, Madison Gove, told me about the Minor and encouraged me to review its requirements. At the time, I was already debating switching from a B.S. to a B.S.A. in chemistry, so I’d have a lot more time in my schedule. I thought, “this minor sounds really interesting. It seems like a lot of classes I really enjoy taking. Why not apply?”

Madison: That’s truly wonderful that you heard about it, and that you’ve been involved with GSLI as well in other programs. What has been your favorite experience in the Minor thus far?

Grace: I’d have to say my journalism class. I haven’t taken too many classes in the Minor yet, but the journalism class is a great course taught by Professor Schwartz. He used to write about climate change for the New York Times, and every day our main piece of homework was just reading a bunch of stories about some topic in climate change, or sustainability in general. One week, we had an assignment that was reading stories about the anti-ESG fight and what that was bringing to the table. We also spent a lot of time in the class discussing stories and what our thoughts were on them, both as people and as journalists. I really enjoyed that class because it’s very different from anything I’ve ever taken before. And he’s a great professor, too. I recommend the class to anyone who is able to take it!!

Madison: Having a class like that is so great! This is actually our final question: why do you think students should apply for future semesters? How did you apply? How can other students apply?

Grace: To answer the second question, there’s an info session about the Minor each semester. Applications are accepted in September-October and February-March each year through a Google form. The application asks questions like, “Why is sustainability interesting to you?” and “Why do you care about it?” Nothing too terribly complicated. And then you get to be part of such a great community. Since the Minor is so new, everyone in it has gotten to know each other very quickly. I’ve only been in it for the past 4 months, and I have found it to be such a supportive, tight-knit group–which is nice. And as for the first question, “Why should you join?” The community is great! It also opened some doors to getting involved in the GSLI’s other programs, like LIFT, SEED, etc.. And again, the classes teach you so many diverse skills that you probably wouldn’t get if you’re just doing a single major. If I were just doing a chemistry major — no minor — I never would have learned all the things that I have learned through these classes.

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Global Sustainability Leadership Institute

Welcome to Impact Connections, the GSLI’s blog space! We were formerly known as the Social Innovation Initiative.